Subscribe to The Horn Book

Picture books celebrating today’s Israel

Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day, is being celebrated today. If you automatically picture only kibbutzim and camels when you think of the country, it’s time to think again with the help of this bounty of picture books that share a contemporary, child’s-eye view of the modern Israel. After moving to Israel with my family in 2013, a process known as “making aliyah” (or “going up”), I quickly discovered that I still had a lot to learn. As a children’s writer, a mom, and an avid reader, I turned to picture books; here’s a quick roundup of some of the books that have become my favorites.

Whirlwind Tours

For a fly’s-eye view of the modern Israeli landscape, follow Zvuvi! This adventurous fly and his cousin Zahava lead a rollicking tour, jam-packed with everything from rafting and cable cars to ancient and holy sites. Zvuvi’s Israel was written by Tami Lehman-Wilzig and illustrated by Ksenia Topaz (Kar-Ben, 2009); that both author and illustrator live in Israel gives the book an added authenticity.

Shalom Everybodeee!: Grover’s Adventures in Israel by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer (illustrated by Tom Leigh, Kar-Ben, 2016) is a likable entry in the Shalom Sesame series. Grover shares the scoop on his whirlwind visit to Israel, from nibbling falafel to floating in the Dead Sea and visiting a Bedouin family. Seriously, who doesn’t love Grover?!

One of the classic “kids’ tour” books is Ella’s Trip to Israel by Vivian Newman (illustrated by Akemi Gutierrez, Kar-Ben, 2011). Ella’s stuffed monkey Koofi keeps getting into trouble all over the country, from the Dead Sea to the Galilee. “Eyn ba’aya,” says everybody — no problem! — making this refrain a phrase kids will want to join in with on repeated readings.

3 Falafels in My Pita by Maya Friedman (illustrated by Steve Mack, Kar-Ben, 2015), is a counting book and travelogue for the very youngest readers and listeners. We count snorkelers in Eilat (six), cable cars going up to Masada (one), and falafels in a kid’s pita (three, of course).  Part of a series of early Jewish content board books from Kar-Ben, this type of volume will be reassuringly familiar to little kids while also introducing them to new ideas.

Off the Beaten Path

In the simple concept book The Colors of Israel (Kar-Ben, 2015), author/photographer Rachel Raz introduces some basic color words and some more-out-of-the-way place names like Akko, Rosh Hanikra, and Givatayim. Her photographic images burst with Israeli sunshine and eye-poppingly bright colors spotted all over the country.

I love Israel travel books that cover some of the less-well-known spots, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own recent picture book Fast Asleep in a Little Village in Israel (illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke, Apples & Honey, 2018). All Mrs. Strauss wants is a few more minutes of sleep…but a rooster, a dog, a mosquito, and more seem to have other plans. I wrote this book to share the boisterous, lively sounds of life in the little suburb of Haifa where I live.

Not too far from where I live, out on the Nahalal moshav in the Galilee, is the setting for the picture-book love story Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and Rabbi Ron Isaacs (Apples & Honey, 2015). This story treats readers to tantalizing glimpses of what it’s like to live on a modern Israeli kibbutz, and C. B. Decker’s illustrations are based on photographs taken on a kibbutz.

Israeli Nature

One of the things my family and I really love about today’s Israel is the way Israelis have embraced nature and ecology. Maybe the best place to learn about that is the restored Hula Valley in northern Israel. The valley is a stopping point for five hundred million birds that migrate annually from Europe to Africa and back again — and I’m pretty sure all of them were squawking at us on our last visit there! In Anna Levine’s All Eyes on Alexandra (illustrated by Chiara Pasqualotto, Kar-Ben, 2018), the title character is a flighty young crane who tends to get lost but who learns to trust in herself and become  a leader. This book celebrates both ecology and family togetherness.

Cranes aren’t the only birds landing in Israel during their long migration journeys. If you’re fascinated by storks – and who isn’t? – you’ll want to add Stork’s Landing by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (illustrated by Anna Shuttlewood, Kar-Ben, 2014) to your Israel ecology collection. On a busy contemporary kibbutz, a young girl works to save an injured stork with a broken wing. Along the way, she also learns a priceless lesson about the meaning of family.

Emotions and Values

Then there are the Israel books that I love because they’re about so much more than Israel. I’m thinking of First Rain by Charlotte Herman (illustrated by Kathryn Mitter, Whitman, 2010), in which one young girl’s family fulfills their lifelong dream and makes the move to Israel. Abby loves so much about her new life, but the two things she misses most are her beloved grandmother and the rain. The issues raised by this book will be very familiar to many families.

Two more Israeli books that go beyond the sights and sounds include When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel (Kar-Ben, 2009), a collaboration between well-known Israeli children’s writer Mirik Snir and her daughter, illustrator Eleyor Snir, which shares Jewish values and celebrates the love between parents and children; and The Waiting Wall by Leah Braunstein Levy (illustrated by Avi Katz, HaChai, 2009), which shares a heartfelt tribute what is probably the most resonant Israeli site: the Western Wall. It’s also noteworthy as one of the few books on this list that spells out the depth and meaning of Judaism as a part of children’s identities.

Another book by an Israeli author involves the search for a missing key, which takes a stay-at-home dad and his son through the streets of a modern Israeli city, with lots of sights and sounds: The Key to My Heart (Kane Miller, 2003). This book was created by well-known Israeli author Nirah Harel and illustrator Yossi Abolafia. Kids will enjoy Hebrew street signs and some demographic variety (though the characters in this slightly older book’s world don’t always fully reflect the ethnic diversity of today’s Israel).

Diversity, History…and Cats

Speaking of which, one book that I love for its emphasis on the diversity that surprises almost every first-time visitor to Israel is Leslie A. Kimmelman’s Everybody Says Shalom (illustrated by Talitha Shipman, Random, 2015). For Gili the gecko, Shalom is “a little word with a lot to say.” As Gili shares some highlights of his life in Israel, the book celebrates the reality of the Israel I know, where Jews, Arabs, and so many more people live, work, and play together. I love how a range of ages, abilities, and skin tones are represented in this book. Yay!

Looking at today’s Israel through a child’s eyes is a specialty for Allison Maile Ofanansky, who writes from her home near Safed in northern Israel. All her books are steeped in the atmosphere and traditions of today’s Israel, and before we actually moved here, her books really helped me and my kids visualize what life might be like here. Through Eliyahu Alpern’s full-color photographs, Ofanansky’s Harvest of Light (Kar-Ben, August 2011) offers a child’s-eye view of her family’s olive harvest just in time to light the Hanukkah menorah. Each of the titles in this Kar-Ben series — which includes New Month, New Moon, Sukkot Treasure Hunt, and Tisha B’Av: A Jerusalem Journey — celebrates a different aspect of the country.

Since moving to Israel, we’ve also discovered that one of the joys of today’s Israel is living side-by-side with yesterday’s Israel — archaeological remains of previous eras and civilizations, which sometimes seem like they’re everywhere. In Jodie’s Shabbat Surprise by Anna Levine (illustrated by Ksenia Topaz, Kar-Ben, 2015), Jodie’s dog uncovers a mysterious pit on a Shabbat walk near their home. Jodie, daughter of a famous archaeologist, absolutely must investigate further.

Another author who celebrates Israel past and present is Deborah Bodin Cohen, whose popular Engineer Ari series is about a train conductor in Ottoman-era Palestine. Now, in Engineer Arielle and the Israel Independence Day Surprise (illustrated by Yael Kimhi Orrelle, Kar-Ben, 2017), Ari’s granddaughter, Arielle, is a train conductor herself — on the light rail train that runs through Jerusalem. All the books in the original series — four so far plus Engineer Arielle — celebrate diversity, coexistence, and Jerusalem’s well-known landmarks, old and new.

Finally, if you ask anyone who’s ever visited Israel what they remember most about their trip, at some point they’ll probably all mention…cats. Cats are absolutely everywhere here. So no roundup of kids’ books on today’s Israel would be complete without mentioning Ann Redisch Stampler’s cheery Cats on Ben Yehuda Street (illustrated by Francesca Carabelli, Kar-Ben, 2013). It takes place in the busy marketplaces of Tel Aviv, where the beloved cat of Mr. Modiano’s neighbor goes missing. Is there room in this grouchy fishmonger’s heart for a little compassion and friendship? The answer is a resounding yes.

Jennifer Tsivia MacLeod About Jennifer Tsivia MacLeod

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod is the author of picture books Fast Asleep in a Little Village in Israel and Yossi and the Monkeys, among others. She lives in northern Israel with her family.

Share

Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful and timely post. I agree that Leslie Kimmelman and Talitha Shipman’s book is outstanding.
    Who doesn’t love Grover? One thing that struck me,though, is that Grover, although a muppet, is allowed to pray in the men’s section of the Kotel (Western Wall), while the women and girls are segregated in their own smaller area. Maybe Kar-Ben could be a little more aware of their American audience here.
    https://www.hbook.com/2019/05/blogs/out-of-the-box/picture-books-celebrating-todays-israel/

  2. Please consider adding my book Shmulik Paints the Town (Kar-Ben 2016 and PJ Library book) to the list Shmulik the painter has to paint a mural for Israel Independence Day but can’t decide what to paint. Luckily he gets some help from his little dog.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*